Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae Family)

Quail Ridge provides habitat for six species of tyrant flycatcher, hawking insectivorous birds with a relatively large head, mostly drab plumage, and a rather flattened bill with bristles at its base. Tyrannids are the only North American representatives of a passerine suborder termed the Suboscines, characterized by structural differences in the syrinx – the reason for their throatier, less developed songs. The family is divided into multiple genera, of which Empidonax and Contopus are worthy of mention.

The genus Empidonax includes eleven small, nearly identical flycatchers in North America. All have a slightly lighter front than back, a light eye ring, and two white wing bars. They are so physically similar that often only male song reveals their species, perhaps even among themselves. The Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) is the only Empidonax species at Quail Ridge, which simplifies its identification. It is common in shaded deciduous woodland, often associated with streams, so it reaches high densities in Decker Canyon. Its call is characteristic of the black oak woodland in spring. Females build nests of grasses, bark, fur, and feathers in a variety of locations: stream banks, cliff ledges, or tree cavities or crevices.

Local birds of the genus Contopus – the Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) and Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus) – are present at Quail Ridge, but only in spring. Both species perch in the upper canopy, the larger Olive-sided Flycatcher situating itself more conspicuously. Quail Ridge is within the breeding range for the pewee, but it has not yet been found except during migration.

Three additional flycatchers are locally common on the Reserve. The Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) strictly nests in pre-formed cavities, which it lines with fur, hair, and feathers. It favors somewhat open habitat within chaparral and oak and riparian woodland, and densities are relatively constant from Decker Canyon to the ridge (1.5 vs 1.7 birds/ha). The Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) is partial to dry, open areas that facilitate foraging from a high perch. The kingbird nests in riparian woodland or near grassland and builds a stick nest beside the trunk of a tree. In contrast, the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) chooses a low, conspicuous perch in open areas, always near water, where it bobs its tail incessantly. A tenacious carnivore, the Phoebe hawks insects from near the water’s surface, commonly eating bees and wasps. Shaded mud nests are built on or under ledges, often directly above a stream. It is common in Decker Canyon and along the lakeshore. Birds will range into the open chaparral to forage.

Ash-throated Flycatcher; Courtesy of John Pelafigue © 2005 John Pelafigue
Western Kingbird; Photo courtesy of Tom Greer © 2004 Tom Greer
Black Phoebe; Photo Courtesy of Tom Greer © 2004 Tom Greer


Species and Guild Accounts

Birds Page

Listen and identify birds at: http://identify.whatbird.com/mwg/_/0/attrs.aspx

Photo Credits: Title, California Quail (Joyce Gross), Ash-throated Flycatcher (John Pelafigue; http://www.myfotos.ws), Western Kingbird and Black Phoebe (Tom Greer). For more pictures see: http://elib.cs.berkeley.edu/photos/fauna/

This page last updated: April 5, 2007  

Contact: Dr. Virginia Boucher
John Muir Institute of the Environment
109 The Barn, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
Phone: 530-752-6949; email: vlboucher@ucdavis.edu

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